After Bernie, progressive Democrats storm the ballot — even in NC

Bernie Sanders and Rev. Barber push for ‘a moral economy’ during Duke University visit

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and the Rev. William Barber II took part in a discussion at Duke University on Thursday, April 19, 2018.
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Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and the Rev. William Barber II took part in a discussion at Duke University on Thursday, April 19, 2018.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent whose insurgent progressive movement shook up the 2016 Democratic primary campaign, will be in Durham on Thursday for a public event at Duke University Chapel.

The impact of his presidential campaign and continued push for progressive policies will be evident, too, on the May 8 primary ballot all over North Carolina.

Supporters of Sanders are running in Democratic primaries in several congressional districts, facing long odds but boosted by endorsements from groups created by alumni of the Sanders’ campaign.

There’s Brand New Congress, a political action committee, that supports candidates who are committed to renewable energy, reducing the number of people in prison and implementing higher minimum wages, among other progressive ideals, and who pledge to accept no corporate PAC or lobbyist money. The group, which supports some Republican candidates, has endorsed Democrats Richard Watkins of Durham in the Triangle’s 4th Congressional District and Jenny Marshall of Winston-Salem in the 5th District to the west.

There’s Justice Democrats, another group formed by Sanders supporters, that aims to, in its words, take back the Democratic Party from corporate interests. It wants to ban super PACs, abolish the death penalty and enact what it says are common-sense gun regulations, among other progressive policies. It supports blocking bad trade deals — a rare point of agreement with President Donald Trump. Marshall is endorsed by the group.

And there’s the Contract for American Renewal, a group led by a former Sanders staffer and a literal contract for candidates to sign — a spin on the mid-1990s “Contract for America” that helped Republicans take over the U.S. House in 1994.

Three North Carolina Democrats — Marshall, Wendy Ella May in the 2nd District that includes suburban Raleigh and Gerald Wong in the 6th District that includes Chatham County — have signed the 11-point contract. It calls for a new tax on high-income earners, single-payer health insurance, a $15 minimum wage and overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision on campaign spending.

“It’s a Bernie hangover, but I think that it’s real,” Pope “Mac” McCorkle, a former Democratic consultant who now teaches at Duke, said of Sanders’ impact on politics. “Whether it still takes a little time for that to develop into more of a closer-to-majority voice? Maybe. In 2018, if the analogy is a tsunami, it always recedes. It may not recede all the way back.”

Many of the issues progressives are championing, May said, enjoy broad support across the political spectrum. May is one of three Democrats running for the seat currently held by Republican Rep. George Holding to represent the 2nd district, which includes parts or all of Franklin, Harnett, Johnston, Nash, Wake and Wilson counties. She faces better funded Democratic candidates in Linda Coleman and Ken Romley.

May was a Sanders delegate at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

“I’m running on the values of a true Democrat and the values of the poor. I’m willing to go to D.C. to makes laws to make their lives better. Politicians have forgot that,” said May, a transgender military veteran who considers herself a “progressive New Deal Democrat.” “They forgot they are elected to go there and serve the people that elected them and not people like the NRA or the pharma lobbyists or the oil and gas lobbyists.”

Watkins is challenging incumbent Democrat Rep. David Price of Chapel Hill in the 4th District, which includes Chapel Hill, Cary and Raleigh.

“The more that we can have candidates that run who focus on the core of improving the human condition and our under-represented issues, that’s how we move forward,” said Watkins, a 32-year-old scientist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Watkins favors free higher education, combating climate change, universal health care, criminal justice reform and protection for gays and lesbians in the employment process — many of the same issues that Sanders used to galvanize a segment of the Democratic Party before Hillary Clinton defeated him for the Democratic nomination.

“I would have just been content being a regular person, not going into public service and working in academia,” said Watkins, who is married and has a 2-year-old daughter. “Now I have a daughter and I’m really scared about the future she’s going to grow up in. As a dad, I’ve got to do something. I can’t look at her and say I didn’t try. That just won’t work.”

Marshall, a public school teacher, is one of two Democrats running in the 5th District, currently represented by Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx. The district includes Winston-Salem and 11 counties in the northwest part of the state.

“We need a Congress that is not bought and paid for by big moneyed interests, big corporate PACs that have tended to donate heavily and expect legislation in return,” Marshall said.

Unlike the other progressive challengers, who face long odds to win their primaries, Marshall has raised a significant amount of money — more than $122,000, according to the Federal Elections Commission. Nearly $72,000 of it has come from donors giving less than $200. Her primary opponent, DD Adams, has raised $131,968.

Marshall said her experience as a teacher played a role in her decision to run — and her policies, which include single-payer universal health care and a $15 minimum wage.

“As a public school teacher, I have been teaching my students to work hard and get good grades and you can become anything you want to be in this world, only to send them out into an economy that is full of low-wage, minimum-wage jobs,” said Marshall, who resigned her teaching position to campaign.

“They have very little opportunity for a stable, secure future with employment that would allow them to have a family and to own a home and really live the American Dream.”

Sanders, a potential 2020 candidate for president, and former North Carolina NAACP chairman Rev. William Barber II will participate in a discussion on “The Enduring Challenge of a Moral Economy: 50 Years After Dr. King Challenged Racism, Poverty, and Militarism,” at 8 p.m. at the Duke Chapel.

The event was originally scheduled for Jan. 19 and tickets from that date will be accepted.


A previous version of this story said the Contract for American Renewal group was started by a former Bernie Sanders staffer. The former Sanders staffer is a leader of the group, not the founder.

Brian Murphy: 202-383-6089, @MurphinDC